It’s easy to be on the side of peace and justice when a cause is popular, when the people we defend are admired, and when the sacrifice is not too great. But how many of us are willing to extend our principles to a cause that is unpopular, for people who are despised, at the risk of our livelihood, our family relations and our personal safety.
Of course, honest people disagree about what constitutes justice. There was a time in the history of the U.S. when slavery was commonly accepted. Later, it became our most controversial issue – the only one over which we fought a civil war. And yet today it is not controversial at all; indeed, it’s a mystery how anyone could have condoned it, much less argued in its favor.
Here’s another uncomfortable fact. The United States – the beacon of freedom and human rights – is a product of one of the greatest and most successful ethnic cleansing campaigns the world has ever known.
But how did it come to be this way? Were the people and the societies and the governments who committed these crimes so different from our own? Let us please not be so arrogant as to think so. We have only to look at how easily our society can be terrified and manipulated by the threat of communism or Islam, or how we can be led to believe that marginal powers like North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran might seek to attack the most powerful nation on earth.
Today we use the word “terrorist” to describe the persons who use violence against America and the West. During the ethnic cleansing of North America, we called them “savages.” The function of such words is to make it unnecessary to question our motives when we attack them. In the moments after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, how many in our society asked the question why, and how many felt we didn’t need to?
Our society is not unique in making racist assumptions that other societies are our congenital enemies, regardless of any legitimate grievances they might have about our policies. It is much easier to believe that they hate us for our freedom, and our government and media often encourage us to do so. Why are we so ready to accept that religion or ideology can transform entire populations into fanatic automatons, ready to sacrifice themselves to hurt us. Has our society never asked its youth to make such sacrifices to defend “the American way of life”?
We have to be very careful about demonizing others and about making judgments that fail to acknowledge the humanity of the persons we are judging, and the similarity of their motivations to our own. The Israeli founding father, David Ben Gurion, did not make that mistake:
Why should the Arabs make peace? If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country.
Now there’s honesty. No compassion, but at least honesty.
Are we equally honest? In the place of our ancestors, would we have acknowledged indigenous sovereignty over North America, asked permission to settle, and accepted to live in Indian majority nations?
And look at the feeble excuses made for the ethnic cleansing of the North American indigenous population: that they failed to adjust; that we made generous offers that they refused; that they missed every opportunity that came their way. Sound familiar? I fear that we are just as easily deceived today as in the past, and the issue of Palestine is the perfect example, though by no means the only one.
There are more than 11 million Palestinians in the world today. More than 8 million of them are unable to live in their homes in Palestine, and the remaining 3 million face inexorable pressure to leave.
As with slavery and the genocide of the American Indian, however, many of us accept ridiculous excuses for this state of affairs. Didn’t the United Nations offer them nearly half their country in 1947? Didn’t Israel offer them more than 90% of the 22% of their country that Israel hadn’t yet officially annexed?
And the best one is: doesn’t Israel have a right to exist as a Jewish state? (Of course, if that’s true, then don’t we have the obligation to assure the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, and indeed, don’t they have the obligation to ethnically cleanse themselves?)
How many Americans once believed that Palestine was a land without people for a people without a land, and that Israel made the desert bloom? How many believed that in late May, 2010, several hundred Israeli commandos, armed to the teeth (but nonviolent) were attacked during a peaceful mission in the middle of the Mediterranean by unarmed (but violent) humanitarian aid volunteers.
How honest is our commitment to social justice? Perhaps there is a way to find out.
The word genocide was coined in 1943 by a Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, who became an advisor during the Nuremberg trials at the end of WWII. Lemkin first used his new word in 1943 to describe how a people whose religion and culture were different from the rest of the society in which they lived lost a quarter of their worldwide population through mass slaughter, and how a lot of the rest were widely dispersed. Many of them resettled in the Middle East, where they remain to this day.
You may be forgiven for thinking that I’m referring to the Jews, but in fact, Lemkin first applied the term to the Armenians. And the Armenian case is instructive, because Armenian refugees resettled in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Europe, the US and other places.
Although there are a lot of parallels between the cases of the Armenians and the Jews, there is one major difference. The Armenians never dispossessed an entire population in order to create a state, and today they live pretty much in harmony with the rest of the population wherever they are. (And by the way, so do Jews, except in the region where they chose to expel the existing non-Jewish population.)
So do we judge Armenians and Jews (or at least Israeli Jews) the same or differently? Here’s another yardstick.
In 1948, there were substantial European populations in two non-European locations – South Africa and Palestine. In both of these locations they were the minority, but didn’t want to be, and they decided not to be ruled by the majority.
The South African solution was apartheid – in effect, to make the non-Europeans non-citizens, except in the so-called “homelands” (i.e. Bantustans) set aside for them. In other words, South African whites disenfranchised the majority indigenous population, but did not expel them.
Meanwhile, also in 1948, Israel seized 78% of Palestine and expelled approximately 730,000 of its non-Jewish inhabitants, who constituted 85% of the Palestinian population within the areas seized. On the other hand, they granted the right to vote to the remaining 15% who managed to stay. In other words, Israel expelled the majority population, but enfranchised the remainder – essentially the converse of the South African solution.
So do we judge South Africa and Israel according to the same or different standards? Do we oppose the idea of an exclusionary white state in South Africa, but support the idea of an exclusionary Jewish state in Palestine? How do we feel about exclusionary Muslim and Christian societies in the Balkans? Do we support segregation in Palestine (otherwise known as the two-state solution) but not in the U.S.? How do we feel about the so-called threat to the white Anglo majority in California (or Arizona or Texas) as compared to what in Israel is called the “demographic bomb”?
You get the idea. If we are anti-racist, are we consistently so? And do we accept this principle wherever it takes us? In 1967, I.F. Stone was not afraid to be consistent:
Israel is creating a kind of schizophrenia in world Jewry. In the outside world the welfare of Jewry depends on the maintenance of secular, non-racial pluralistic societies. In Israel, Jewry finds itself defending a society in which mixed marriages cannot be legalized, in which non-Jews have a lesser status than Jews, and in which the ideal is racial and exclusionist. Jews must fight elsewhere for their very security and existence against principles and practices they find themselves defending in Israel.
This is the crux of the matter. Because if Israel has its South African transformation and stops being a Jewish state, in much the way that South Africa is no longer a white state, nearly all the major issues between Palestinians and Israelis will vanish. It will not be a utopia, and it will undoubtedly have many of the same problems that South Africa faces today. But it will have taken a major step towards social justice, and both Palestinians and Israelis (or whatever they choose to call themselves) will know peace – in exactly the way that South Africa now knows peace. Peace is at least the one thing that South Africa has undeniably achieved.
You might wonder how, as a practical matter, Israel could accommodate all the Palestinians who might want to return to their homes. As Dr. Salman Abu Sitta has shown, however, more than 90% of the 500 Palestinian towns and villages destroyed when the state of Israel was created are still empty. Rebuilding them is not a major practical problem, given the will and resources to do so.
Of course, it is clear that Jewish Israelis will never willingly accept such a solution. However, Afrikaners never willingly accepted the dissolution of apartheid, either. The last poll taken before apartheid was dissolved showed that it still had more than 90% support among the white community. South Africa abandoned apartheid not because the whites demanded it, but because their leadership understood the futility of trying to make it work in the face of increasing worldwide condemnation and isolation, including boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Why should we wait for Israel to be convinced of the morality of abandoning a Jewish state?
Is there a just and peaceful solution short of dissolving the Jewish state? Of course, it depends upon one’s principles. However, let us please not deceive ourselves that we are consistently applying the same principles of social justice that deny the legitimacy of ethnic and racial exclusionism elsewhere.
Even on a practical level, there are problems with the idea of a Jewish state. Such a state will always have to find ways to preserve an overwhelmingly Jewish population. If that population declines as Israeli Jews increasingly emigrate to other countries, it will be forced to find ways to decrease the non-Jewish population. And no matter how we look at it, that will not be a pretty picture.
Justice cannot be built on a foundation of injustice. And there is no justice in a state where some people are welcome and others are not, and which is built upon the expulsion of people from their homes. This fundamental fact has to change in order to achieve justice in Palestine.
This is why we must challenge the state of Israel and its policies that are directed toward the expulsion, marginalization and disappearance of the Palestinian people. We must be unwilling to give Israel a pass on the principles that we apply everywhere else.